When it comes to cooking, the sheer variety of herbs and spices can be overwhelming. With all the powders, jars, and plants available, how do you know what to buy and when to use it? When is fresh better than dry? Should you eat the stems, the leaves, the roots? In Herb & Spice Companion (Wellfleet Press, 2015), Lindsay Herman has created an accessible guide to seasonings, with over one hundred profiles of the most-used herbs and spices across the globe. As exampled here with lemongrass, Herman provides a comprehensive look at each plant’s history, how to prep and serve and store the seasoning, and how to grow your own herbs from seed to harvest. That’s not even mentioning her instructions on various techniques for drying, freezing, frying, mixing, crushing, and chopping that are both brilliant and simple. A book for everyone, from cooks just starting out to old pros adding excitement to their dishes, Herb & Spice Companion is a must for any kitchen.
Flavors: tangy, tart lemon with hints of floral, mint, ginger, and pepper
Cool, fresh lemongrass is a favorite flavoring in Indonesian, Malay, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. It features prominently in intricately flavored Malaysian dishes that crisscross between sweet and sour, salty and spicy, and citrus and fish. Lemongrass flavor deepens as it cooks, so add early during cooking for an intense effect, or wait until later for a lighter seasoning. Stalks can be bruised or crushed to release flavor during cooking (then removed before serving), or finely chopped, minced, or pounded to a soft pulp.
Lemongrass is also available in dried powder form, called sereh powder; one teaspoon of sereh powder provides a comparable flavor to one fresh stalk.
Lemongrass can promote healthy digestion and is often consumed as a tea for its stomach-calming effects, including relief from cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Its relaxing aroma makes it one of the top selling essential oils in the world, believed to reduce anxiety and ease muscle pain, joint pain, headaches, and stomachaches.
In the Garden
Lemongrass, a perennial, grows naturally in tropical, sunny climates. In cold climates, lemongrass will grow well indoors in a container when treated to lots of direct sunlight. Just move your lemongrass outside in spring after the last frost and back inside for the winter.
Size: Up to 6 feet
Container: 16 inches in diameter or 5 gallons
Light: Full sun
Soil: Moist, rich, well drained
Plant: Stalks, with tops and decaying layers removed. Place in a glass of water in a sunny window for a few weeks (changing the water every day), until it grows roots that are 1 to 2 inches long.
Water: Regularly, to keep soil moist
Harvest: Harvest when stalks hit 1 foot tall and about 1/2 inch thick at the base. Pull stalks up using your hands, or cut from the base with a sharp knife.
Care: After a few years, divide and replant to prevent crowding.
Keep It Fresh
For longer freshness, store stalks in a plastic bag in the freezer.
In the Kitchen
Dishes: Curries, soups, stews, salads, marinades, teas
Prep: The best lemongrass flavor comes from the inner layers of its bulbous lower half, about 5 inches of the stalk. However, you can also use the upper stems for flavoring in teas, soups, and marinades. Slice off the bottom root end and the green top, and remove the thick green outer layers to reveal the softer white or yellow core—this is the aromatic, flavorful flesh of lemongrass.
Serve: To suffuse lemongrass flavor into stews, marinades, curries, or other hot dishes, slice the inner stalk into long-ish sections (about 2 or 3 inches each), and bruise each section by either bending it or crushing it with the side of a large kitchen knife. This will release the stalk’s aromatics so it permeates into your dish while cooking. Remove the lemongrass stalks before serving.
For an edible lemongrass seasoning, use only the bottom few inches of the stalk that are the most tender and flavorful. Chop finely or mince, then toss into stir-fries, soups, or salads. You can also crush the chopped lemongrass with a mortar and pestle to form a paste, which can be added to cooked dishes like curries and stir-fries.
Fruits and Vegetables: cabbage, carrot, coconut, mushrooms, onions, peaches, peas, pears, peppers, shallots, tomatoes
Proteins: beef, chicken, fish and seafood, peanuts, pork, tofu
Seasonings: anise seeds, basil, chili peppers, chili paste, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin, curry powder, fennel, fish sauce, galangal, garlic, ginger, jalapeño, lemon juice and zest, lime juice and zest, makrut lime, mint, shrimp paste, soy sauce, tamarind, Thai basil, turmeric
• Lemon or lime zest
• Lemon verbena
• Lemon balm
More from Herb & Spice Companion:
Reprinted with permission from Herb & Spice Companion: The Complete Guide to Over 100 Spices and Herbs by Lindsay Herman, published by Wellfleet Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing, 2015.